Shop: All collections

Black Fashion Designers

From Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdez, who designed the iconic Playboy Bunny costume; to '80s legends Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly and Willie Smith; from renaissance man Sammy Davis, Jr. (yes, that Sammy!), to Renaissance-influenced visual artist Kehinde Wiley for Puma; from cult favorite Montgomery Harris to contemporary supernova Stella Jean, Black designers have exerted indelible influence on international style. At Material Life, we celebrate these style mavens and trendsetters by offering a highly selected inventory of never-worn and gently used pieces by our favorites, establishing their work within the overall context of Black excellence and creativity. Material Life is the only retailer of its kind specializing in vintage items by Black designers.  

Fine Art Editions

Fine art editions are originals in the sense that they are the original design of the artist, but they are conceived and produced in multiples—sometimes by hand, sometimes by manufacturing—which results in a lower cost. Some editions are open, meaning the artist doesn't set a limit on how many will be made, while many are limited to a set number.  Either way, it can be an affordable way to collect! 

John Henry Toney

Alabama folk artist John Henry Toney was born in 1928 and lives in Seale, Alabama, at the edge of a swamp marsh. Although he loved to draw, Toney stopped when as a young man he was fired from a job because of a drawing he had made of his boss. In 1994, an unexpected event changed everything: John Henry was plowing a field when he saw, turned up in the soil, a turnip with a face on it. Believing that the turnip was a sign from God, he began to draw again. Toney frequently includes personal information in his work. It is not uncommon to see his phone number, the expiration date of his driver’s license and his age written around his drawings. These are important markers in his life which register his personal identity, and bestow individual importance. Often, the personal anecdotes of an artist are as important as the image-making itself. He declares his best work to be somewhere "between expert and genius." His subjects are sexy, exuberant and sensual.

Mama Girl

Eastern Shore of Painter, Virginia, folk artist Mary "Mama Girl" Onley was known for her papier-mâché sculptures and colorful paintings. She started making art after a series of seizures and a diagnosis of severe allergies caused her to stop working in the fields—work she had done for more than 22 years since age 12. Onley began experimenting with a variant of papier-mâché using strips of newspaper, Elmer's glue and acrylic paint. Also a pastor, Onley called for guidance on the Spirit — the voice of God that would speak to her when she began working on a new piece of art. "I said good Lord, give me something nobody's never done. Show me how to work this newspaper and glue," she said. "The Spirit showed me how to work the newspaper and glue and I started right from there, you know." Onley created her art in her home studio on a back road in Painter. Watch Mama Girl on PBS here.

ODIE Nola

Designed by Chloe Newberry, ODIE NOLA is a custom line of recycled, embroidered clothing designed to shed light on historical untruths & recurrent issues affecting marginalized communities. The focus of the collection is to unlearn the lies history books taught us, and start a dialogue between the wearer and the questioner. “ODIE” is an acronym for “Or Does It Explode,” a line from Langston Hughes' Harlem poem, which poses questions about the aspirations of a people and the consequences that might arise if those dreams don't come to fruition. “Or Does It Explode" is also the title of the civil rights chapter of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, the influential non-fiction work that presents a factual history of America. By spreading social justice truths through graphic messaging on clothing, ODIE NOLA intends to educate the misinformed through fashion in an assertive, accessible way— one piece at a time. 30% of each sale is donated to VOTE New Orleans, an organization dedicated to restoring the full human and civil rights of those most impacted by the criminal (in)justice system. Please find a link to donate to the organization here. 

Patrick Kelly Collection

Designer Patrick Kelly (1954 - 1990) took the fashion world by storm in the 1980s when he debuted his vibrant, colorful designs, which he sent down a runway that more closely resembled a party. Kelly moved to Paris, where he became the first American member of the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter (the governing body of the prestigious French ready-to-wear industry).  Ahead of his time, the Mississippi-born Kelly adapted cultural stereotypes such as Mammies and Golliwogs into symbols of pride and self-identity. Kelly's classic designs have been the focus of two retrospective exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum (2004) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2014). 

Ruth Inge Hardison

Born in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1914, Ruth Inge Hardison was a sculptor, artist, and photographer known especially for her 1960s busts entitled “Negro Giants in History.” Her focus was historical Black portraiture, and she was especially interested in creatively representing the unspoken voices of the African American past. In 1969 she became the sole woman founding member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters (BAAL). Hardison's sculptures mostly began as clay, wax, or plaster molds, and later cast into cast stone or bronze. In 1963 Harriet Tubman was the first in her iconic series of cast iron busts, “Negro Giants in History.”  Hardison died on March 23, 2016, at age 102.

Shindana Toys and Games

Shindana Toys, a Division of Operation Bootstrap, was founded in 1968 in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts, California riots.   "Shindana Toys, a division of Operation Bootstrap, Inc., stands alone as the largest black-owned and operated toy company in the world. It had its genesis in the rubble of the 1965 Watts revolt and it emerged in 1968 with a will to compete in the face of discouraging odds. A practical recognition of this spirit is reflected in the selection of the name “Shindana” – it means competitor in Swahili."Shindana was founded by Lou Smith and Robert Hall without government subsidy or aid. Substantial working capital, technical assistance and equipment were provided initially by Mattel, Inc., with no strings attached, as an expression of that company’s commitment to its social responsibility in the Los Angeles community. The company's goal was to help rebuild the community and provide jobs for community residents.  Their moto, Learn, baby! Learn!  was in stark opposition to "Burn, baby! Burn!" which was chanted by the 1965 rioters as they burned buildings in their own community during a six-day protest against police brutality.Shindana Toys was one of the many co-ops formed under the Division of Operation Bootstrap.  Their doll factory, located in Watts from 1968 through 1983, became a forerunner in the manufacture of ethnically correct dolls for Black children.  While most Shindana dolls were Black, their catalog of dolls includes a few that represent other ethnicities. Dolls were designed in Los Angeles by Edward "Batiste" Williams. The company marked a line of 32 Black dolls and 6 Black-oriented games. Mr. Lou Smith is to be remembered, for his vision helped make the difference between success and failure. He never wavered from Shindana’s objectives of providing jobs with pride in the ghetto and showing people that they can help themselves, and that in the process they can learn to love those who may be different from themselves. He believed that “the only plan is the commitment.” Today the Shindana dolls are collector items.